Art and Dissent in Singapore: An Interview with Seelan Palay




THERE’S ONLY ONE place in Singapore where citizens can protest, perform, demonstrate, or otherwise express dissent. It is called Speakers’ Corner, and it is on the edge of the manicured Hong Lim Park. On October 1, 2017, the Singaporean artist Seelan Palay knew that as soon as he left Speakers’ Corner during his performance piece called 32 Years: The Interrogation of a Mirror, he would be fair game for arrest. And he was arrested, just outside the national parliament. He was prepared, having done two previous stints in jail for his provocations. He performed 32 Years shortly before his own 32nd birthday to commemorate fellow Singaporean Chia Thye Poh, the world’s longest-serving political detainee, who was forced to spend 32 years in jail and house arrest, without trial, by the Lee Kuan Yew government for alleged pro-communist activity. In his itinerant performance, Palay made a speech, unfurled a banner, and held up a literal mirror to the National Gallery. 

Last month, after a lengthy trial, Palay was found guilty for violating the Public Order Act and served a two-week jail sentence. Having met him shortly after his arrest last year, I wanted to interview him about his subsequent experiences, during which he managed to open an independent art gallery in downtown Singapore. Palay has been working since his first gallery show in 2007, when he was 22. He is of compact build and is visibly energetic; he often wanders Singapore late into the night. He speaks softly but emphatically in full, multi-clause sentences. 

For many outside observers today, Singapore is known for delectable hawker food, banks, infinity pools, shopping, and Crazy Rich Asians — the ultimate “Asian Tiger” success story. Yet in Palay’s view, Singapore is also a nation of enforced racial silos (it is one of the only countries to make citizens list their race on national ID cards), strangled freedom of expression, and harshly punished dissent. Palay is one of the few artists in the tiny, rule-bound island to use art as a form of protest. We spoke about his trial, the line between art and activism, censorship, institutional critique, and the Southeast Asian art world.

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KRITHIKA VARAGUR: You were released from prison on October 15, 2018, after serving a two-week sentence. What was the trial and sentencing process like?

SEELAN PALAY: I represented myself in court. The maximum sentence would have been around a month and could have been higher for a repeat offender — which I am — but my last offense was more than five years ago, so I think that helped. I chose prison in lieu of a fine of $2,500 Singapore dollars, which I did not want to pay.

Why did you choose prison instead of the fine?

I still maintain that I am not guilty. I think paying the fine would have been equivalent to admitting that I am guilty. If I wanted to pay the fine, I could have done that a long time ago, but I felt that if they are keen to go to court and charge me for it, I would like to have a say in the process. 

Why did you represent yourself in court?

I found it important to argue and defend myself based on the nature of the artwork, and I felt like a lawyer may not be able to do that. Not all of my arguments were based on legal pronouncements, and it’s not so easy for someone other than the artist to represent that.

In terms of the process, the prosecution brought out witnesses, a list of police officers who were on-site at the performance. I was allowed to cross-examine them. I asked specifically for the officer who arrested me to come up. I took a few of the objects used in the performance: the book, mirror, drawings, and banner that I used at Speakers’ Corner. I showed them to the arresting officer and asked him what meaning he derived from the objects. He admitted that he didn’t understand what they were trying to say. I then proceeded to ask him, since the Singapore Constitution guarantees freedom of assembly to citizens so long as they don’t pose a threat to public order or national security, whether my performance that day threatened any of those things, or whether it was an immoral act. To all those things, he said no. Eventually, he said that I seemed to be causing an inconvenience to the guards.

So what exactly did the judge say in her decision?

I can’t say for sure what the judge was thinking, but she agreed that I had conducted a procession without a permit for three purposes: to commemorate Dr. Chia, to demonstrate opposition to the government, and to oppose the institution of the Speakers’ Corner.

Did you agree with those purposes?

No, I don’t agree. I did explain that those were not the purposes of my action, and that there are many layers to the work. For example, I had explained it was equal to my own lived experience of 32 years, which is why I performed it when I did. That being said, I didn’t want to break down every single component, because I feel like art should still be left open to interpretation and it wouldn’t be doing a service to anyone.

Actually, the whole process was part of this performance, including being arrested, facing charges, going to trial, being detained, and then being released. One of the books I brought into prison with me was Art as Experience by John Dewey, and when I was released, I looked down at the book and the ground and announced that the performance was now concluded — after more than a year.

So did you envision this ordeal from the start?

Yes, because I have been in prison before.

The banner that I held during my performance said “Passion Made Probable,” which is a play on the promotional language of the Singapore tourism board, in whose videos you see middle-aged tourists arguing things about Singapore. I saw that and thought, most passion is not possible here.

Does the state play a role in your work?

There were three locations to my performance: the Speakers’ Corner, Parliament House, and the National Gallery, and I didn’t know where I would be stopped. Even after I was arrested, the state had the option of whether or not to charge me. So that is where probability lies in the work. The state is an active participant in the work. I did think about all the possibilities, but I did not know what the exact outcome would have been.

So what I explained just now, by the way, is one of the layers of meaning for me, but I didn’t say this part in court, because the trial wasn’t over yet, and if I had spoken a lot about this probability, it would have changed that outcome.

Can you talk about state funding of the arts in Singapore and your position on it?

In Singapore, most of the funding and money for the arts comes from the state. It comes with a lot of conditions, including censorship, changing of works, and also self-censorship. For instance, if a theater group puts on work that the government doesn’t like, it would probably get less funding the following year.

Is your work in any Singapore museum now?

Not as far as I know. I’ve sold some work mainly to private collectors.

Something interesting is that I made a plea in court to have the three objects that were confiscated from my performance returned to me, but the prosecution insisted that they be destroyed, and the judge agreed. That is unfortunate, because it was a concrete record of the work. I actually had a prospective buyer for the mirror already! But even though it was disappointing, it was meaningful in its own way: it’s a permanent statement about the arts in Singapore.

What had you drawn on the mirror?

I started with a few lines of a monologue, based on some notes about Chia’s life and my own — what Chia was doing in a certain year and what I was thinking in that year, up until the day of the performance. I took out various objects from my bag and drew outlines of them on the mirror, and then I did some drawings of the facades of the National Gallery and Parliament House. All of these drawings overlapped on the mirror.

What was your actual prison term like?

I was in solitary confinement.

The whole time?

Yes.

It was interesting, I would say. It was manageable, but the first five days were difficult, because I didn’t have my books; they were being screened for security purposes. The entire experience was quite a strong memory for me. I’ll hopefully exhibit some paintings based on that experience to reflect on my time in prison in December or January.

When you’re stuck in a small room and can’t speak to anyone, you talk to yourself, and very often you find yourself walking around in circles. I could hear other prisoners talking to each other and singing — because the walls were thin — and I couldn’t participate in it. It’s funny: on the outside, Malays and Indians are the minority, but inside, we’re the majority.

What do you think about the fact that dissent is punishable with solitary confinement in Singapore?

So, the solitary confinement was not because they specifically wanted me to be in solitary but because, when you go in on the first day, they expect you to give a blood sample [for public health purposes]. But you have a right to refuse it, which I did, because I didn’t want injections from any state institution, so then they put me in solitary confinement.

In terms of being imprisoned for art, in general: Human beings, I think, should be free to express themselves, even if they are not artists, as long as exercising their rights doesn’t take away the rights of anyone else. There should be a free market of ideas alongside our famous free market economy.

Is there an activist element to your recent performance?

I guess people would say that, but the way I see it, had I wanted to just commit an act of civil disobedience — which is what the court was trying to frame it as, anyway — it would have been much easier for me just to “protest.” Thinking, planning, and conducting a performance is actually more difficult, to me. I’m not proud of it being difficult. Even my arresting officer told me that he didn’t understand what was being shown in front of him.

How did you become interested in Chia Thye Poh?

I’ve read about Chia for years, and he has been in the back of my mind for a long time. He suffered 32 years without trial, five years longer than Nelson Mandela. To me, that was quite a big realization. The amount of years is just unimaginable. I was in prison for just two weeks and I had a strange, heavy feeling. Can you imagine being detained for 32 years?

So on my 30th birthday, I realized I would soon be 32 and have lived the same amount of time that he was detained. It struck a strange chord with me, and I had quite an intense emotional reaction. At first I felt agony, and then that turned to determination, and I thought, when I turn 32, I must create a work of art that would reflect what I was feeling at that moment. I didn’t even know if would be a performance, since I prefer painting and drawing, but I came to see that performance would be the most apt medium.

What was it like studying visual art in Singapore?

Well, I was expelled in my second year from art school, so I’m not sure I can give a great answer.

Why was that?

It was because of a work called “Gotta Start Somewhere.” I studied at LASALLE College of the Arts, which started in an older campus with a lot of paintings, graffiti, tagging, and artwork by the students. Then we moved to a new campus in an enormous, black, corporate building, and the fine arts department was put in the basement. We didn’t even have daylight anymore. Everything became very clinical. I wanted to respond to it in some way and maybe get the other students to start thinking about the space around them, so I made a stencil that said GOTTA START SOMEWHERE and spray-painted it in the basement and on the steps. One of the guards saw me, and I was told by the administration the next day that I had to apologize or be expelled. I said I’m willing to explain the work, but I’m not willing to apologize for it, and that perhaps we might discuss it first. But I was just expelled. After that, I just continued to work on my own.

What was process of starting your own gallery, Coda Culture, in January 2018, with the trial hanging over your head? 

I had been traveling quite a bit through Southeast Asia and visited a lot of independent art spaces in places like Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Philippines, and I felt inspired to do something similar to show that artists can be independent and do interesting things in Singapore. I came up with the name Coda Culture five years ago and was looking for an opportunity to use it. When the trial happened, actually, it put an end to my travels for a while, and I realized I would actually be in Singapore for long enough to get started, so the gallery is actually related to the trial, in that way.

Is there a thematic link between the artists who show at your gallery?

I just try to choose artists who are pushing some kind of boundary — in aesthetics, presentation, or concept — work that I feel is a good fit. So far, it has been all Singaporean artists, and I am actually looking for a new space, because the lease on this one ends in December. I am thinking of moving to Little India, which is becoming a sort of alternative art enclave — I hope to help grow that ecosystem.

Do you feel connected to the Southeast Asian art community?

There are certain commonalities that we face. Most of us have been under one-party or authoritarian rule for a long time, which shapes our societies and also our art scenes.

Have Singapore’s restrictions on freedom of expression worsened?

I think definitely you can say that the crackdown is getting worse. For example, Jolovan Wham [a social worker] is facing a very weird charge for Skyping in Joshua Wong [the activist] from Hong Kong to a discussion panel in Singapore without a permit. That really is a sign that things are getting extremely bad. The state has been going after the historian P. J. Thum. Roy Ngerng, a blogger, wrote critically about Singapore’s pension scheme, and the prime minister sued him in his personal capacity. I haven’t heard of the prime minister of any other developed country suing a citizen over a blog post. So yes, I do believe it is getting worse.

Do you expect to ever be in prison again?

No, I don’t expect it. I don’t foresee any other performance that has the capacity to do that. But, I mean, I don’t know what the state will do!

Is there anyone who remembered you from your previous stints inside?

Not in the court itself, but some of the prison wardens recognized me, and they were quite nice.

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Krithika Varagur is an American journalist who writes about religion and geopolitics, often in Southeast Asia.


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